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Charlotte readies for the president, protesters, traffic headaches

Starting Monday, Charlotte will play host to nearly 6,000 politicians, protesters hoping to number in the tens of thousands, and the president of the United States as the Democratic National Convention comes to town to nominate Barack Obama for a second term.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Starting Monday, Charlotte will play host to nearly 6,000 politicians, protesters hoping to number in the tens of thousands, and the president of the United States as the Democratic National Convention comes to town to nominate Barack Obama for a second term.

The convention unofficially kicks off Monday with CarolinaFest, a Labor Day-themed parade and festival in Uptown Charlotte.

After the official start at Time Warner Cable Arena Tuesday, delegates will formally nominate Obama for president and Joe Biden for vice president Wednesday, and the two will take the stage themselves at the Bank of America stadium Thursday night.

North Carolina will get its shot at the podium when Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton speaks at CarolinaFest and then again on Thursday night. Other speakers from North Carolina include Sen. Kay Hagan; U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield, David Price and Mel Watts; former Gov. Jim Hunt; Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.

High-profile national speakers include former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter; keynote speaker San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro; Caroline Kennedy, the only living child of President John F. Kennedy; former Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist; and "Desperate Housewives" actress and Obama campaign co-chair Eva Longoria.

Protests and traffic headaches

During the convention, Charlotte residents will be dealing with protests and numerous road closures. North Carolina transportation officials urged anyone who doesn't have to be in Charlotte during the convention to avoid the city.

Thousands are expected to join Occupy Charlotte in the "March on Wall Street South" protest Sunday in Uptown Charlotte, which is home to the headquarters of Bank of America and substantial operations for Wells Fargo, two of the nation's largest financial institutions. On the other end of the political spectrum, tea party activists and other right wing groups are also planning protests.

Security rules that went into effect Saturday cover a more than 100-square-block zone as far as a mile from convention venues.

The rules bar anyone other than government employees from carrying handbags and backpacks or possessing soda cans, drink coolers, scarves, bike helmets, baby strollers or pets not specifically permitted as service animals. A section banning "a container or object of sufficient weight to be used as a projectile" could be interpreted to include almost anything, from an apple to an iPhone. Those caught violating any of these prohibitions could be subject to arrest and jail.

The public can also expect road closures, parking restrictions and changes to public transit around the Time Warner Cable Arena and Bank of America Stadium, starting at 9 a.m. Sunday and running until 5 a.m. Friday.

Interstate 277 will be closed between Interstate 77 and Independence Boulevard from 9:30 a.m. Thursday until 2 a.m. Friday. Traffic congestion is expected along Interstates 77, 84 and 485, U.S. Highway 74 and N.C. Highway 27.

Promises and perils for Democrats in Charlotte

Charlotte as the site of the Democratic National Convention illustrates many of the promises and perils facing the party.

Democrats remain hopeful that the convention will launch Obama to a repeat of his upset victories in North Carolina and Virginia in 2008. Polls show Obama and Republican Mitt Romney running neck and neck in the Tar Heel state, where Democrats still have a comfortable edge in voter registration.

"There are a lot of things in his favor," said state Rep. Mickey Michaux, of Durham, a Democratic convention delegate, citing Obama's work to rescue the auto industry and lead military efforts to kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. He said North Carolina voters share Obama's view that his efforts to improve the economy were blocked by Congressional Republicans.

If Democrats were hoping that North Carolina would provide a narrative to support the president's case that the economy recovering, they must be disappointed.

The state has an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, one of the highest in the country. The Charlotte metro rate is higher at 10 percent, making it difficult to portray the city of 750,000 as on the cusp of recovery after its once-soaring banking industry tumbled.

"The plan was that Charlotte would allow them to give the message that the banks went down, but Charlotte is coming back, just like the country," said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Heading into next week, he added, "it's harder to use Charlotte as the place for the national economic turnaround, driven by Obama economic policies."

Some of the national Democratic party's main constituencies have not been shy about their displeasure with the more conservative politics of the host state.

Last May's passage of the gay marriage ban, which was backed by evangelist and North Carolina icon Billy Graham among others, provided a dose of reality to liberal activists, revealing a gap between Obama and more socially conservative North Carolina voters. The day after the referendum, the president voiced his support for gay marriage.

The selection of Charlotte remains a sore point with unions, which gave $8.3 million toward the 2008 convention in Denver that nominated Obama. This time, many unions are refusing to financially support the convention because of North Carolina's ban on collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers, which contributes to the state's lowest-in-the-nation rate for organized workers. 

But Democratic strategists say none of these issues will matter once the convention begins and the party starts delivering its message to voters.

"Those things may be headaches and may be bothersome but in the great scheme of things don't matter," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant in North Carolina who worked with former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt and ex-U.S. Sen. John Edwards. "They made a strategic decision early on that we want to go to North Carolina to send a signal that we are challenging Romney in what should be his home turf." 

For now, North Carolina has the markings of a battleground state for its 15 electoral votes.

The TV airwaves have lit up with advertisements from both campaigns and super PACs in North Carolina, where at least $56 million worth of commercials have run so far. Both sides are investing heavily in voter-outreach and volunteer efforts.

"The Democrats in '08 did an exceptional job of registering voters and getting voters to the polls and the Republicans did a poor job," said Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger, but "I suspect that what you're going to see this time is both parties doing a good job of getting voters (out)."

The Republicans' 20 or so "victory" campaign offices still fall short of the 40 Obama for America locations in North Carolina. The 2008 campaign never left the state, as Obama for America kept volunteers organized to push his agenda and support allies in local elections.

Obama's "grassroots organization is connected to communities across the state in ways Romney's campaign just cannot match," said Cameron French, Obama's North Carolina campaign press secretary.

Yet the increasing number of independent voters in North Carolina — 1.6 million compared to 1.3 million at this time in 2008 — adds to the uncertainty over November's outcome.

At first glance, "you probably would have thought this was the same state," Crayton said. "It goes to show how much a slight shift (in) the politics can make a competitive state change."


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